Tom Wilson eager to make an impact for Caps

May 17, 2013

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Highly-touted prospect Tom Wilson made his NHL debut in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it remains to be determined whether the young winger will be on the Capitals’ opening-night roster next fall.

As encouraged as the Capitals were by Wilson’s performance in three games against the New York Rangers, they don’t want to rush the 19-year-old.

“I explained to him, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for your development’. Right now I’m not sure what that is,” General Manager George McPhee said Wednesday. “Is it go back to junior, be on the power play and kill penalties and score 40 goals? Or come and play with us for 8 to 10 minutes a game and survive? I don’t want him to be a career survivor, though. I want him to develop.”

Wilson found himself in the lineup after veteran winger Martin Erat dislocated his elbow in Game 4. The Toronto native played the final three games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series skating no more than 9:02 in a limited, fourth-line role in those appearances.

While Wilson wasn’t counted on to make a game-changing impact and didn’t record a point, he displayed his strong skating ability, willingness to finish a hard check and rile up any opponent.

“I got a little bit of experience in the postseason this year, which was amazing, and really was privileged to have had that opportunity,” Wilson said. “I’m just going to work hard this offseason and hopefully come in in September and make an impact.”

Wilson was extremely complementary of the way Capitals players, especially Matt Hendricks, helped him prepare for his high-pressure debut.

“I learned a lot. Every time you’re up here, you learn a ton from the guys. It’s a professional environment and a great group of guys,” Wilson said. “I’m always learning, I mean Hendricks and guys are teaching me. Every time I was out on the ice I definitely felt a little bit more comfortable every shift and just got some experience.”

There’s no question Wilson, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, is physically prepared to hold his own in the NHL but he’s still developing the all-around skill set that the Capitals hope can lay the foundation for him to become a consistent top-six power forward.

“He’s a big kid that works his tail off, he’s got good speed and he’s going to get even bigger now – he’s only 19,” McPhee said. “So we’ll see what it looks like in training camp but at the end of the day we want him to be a really good player for a long time so we’ll make that decision based on what it looks like in training camp.”

Depending on the other offseason moves Washington makes – whether the team re-signs Hendricks or opts for a compliance buyout of any players on the roster – a spot could open up for Wilson. If not, he might spend another year with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers.

While his brief appearance in the postseason made a strong first impression, McPhee acknowledged that deciding when Wilson is ready to make the jump to the NHL full time is a difficult, multi-faceted decision.

“It’s always a tough call because a lot of times these kids come in and they look great in camp and then they look good in October but by December they’re not playing much and they start to fade,” McPhee said. “They don’t really want to go back to junior so if you send them back there they’re not having fun there, so over the years I’ve tried to cut them early and send them back so there’s no temptation there to keep them around. But this kid’s a first-round pick and he played a year of junior after we drafted him, not unlike Ovi, Nicky and Johansson. They played one year and then we started with them.”

In other news: The Hershey Bears announced that Mark French will not return as coach in 2013-14 after four years with the Capitals’ AHL affiliate. French led the team to the 2010 Calder Cup Championship and the Bears went 180-100-33 in his four seasons at the helm.

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